Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Book Review: The Snow Queen

Book Review: The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

Kay and Gerda are best friends who live in adjacent garrets, and often visit each other across the roof, where their parents have installed flower boxes with rosebushes.  They are like brother and sister, and very happy together until one day Kay’s personality changes.  He has been pierced in heart and eye by shards of the Devil’s distorting mirror, so now Kai only sees the flaws and ugliness of people, and his heart is slowly turning to ice.

The Snow Queen

In mid-winter, Kay recklessly goes sledding without Gerda or any other companion, and winds up hitching his sled to the sleigh of the Snow Queen.  As it happens, the queen of all snow has seen Kay before, and decides to keep him, kissing away his memory of family and friends.  Everyone else is convinced that Kay has frozen to death or drowned in the river, but Gerda is not so sure.  When the weather thaws, Gerda goes looking for Kay, having many adventures along the way.

This is one of the many fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), one of Denmark’s most famous authors.  First printed in 1844, it’s also one of his longest fantasy works (but still only about forty pages without illustrations) and much acclaimed.  It’s been adapted many times, and has inspired other works such as the movie Frozen.

Since this is a public domain story, easily downloadable for free from Project Gutenberg, or available at your local library in the children’s section, the main reasons to look at this particular edition are the fresh translation by Jean Hersholt and illustrations by Finnish-heritage artist Sanna Annukka.  The language flows well (though parents will want to read it with their children the first go-round to explain some of the words.)   The illustrations are striking, and perhaps a little frightening in places (this would be a good time to introduce young readers to the variety of Scandinavian art.)  The art is very stylized, which works well for the magical beings involved in the story.

The Snow Queen is very much steeped in Scandinavian Christian folklore, from the hobgoblin who is in fact the Devil and his cruel mirror, to Gerda’s prayers bringing angels to defend her in time of need.  It’s stated that Gerda’s simple faith and innocence give her power–it never occurs to her that it’s odd to be able to speak to flowers (but not get much out of the exchange) or that a robber girl will suddenly choose to help her on her quest rather than kill her.

And this tale is surprising rich in  female characters: the wise Grandmother, alien Snow Queen, selfish Flower Witch, clever Princess and wild Robber Girl, as well as sweet Gerda herself.  Some of these characters would make good stories with their own adventures.  It’s notable that there is no confrontation with the Snow Queen at the end–she’s away on a business trip when Gerda arrives to free Kay.  Perhaps this is for the best, as someone must see that snow gets where it belongs.

One aspect that may be troubling for parents is that after Kay is affected by the distorting mirror, he only finds beauty in mathematics, logic and symmetry.  He’s noted for being able to do arithmetic in his head–with fractions!

The book has sturdy covers and thick pages, so should survive frequent re-reading by youngsters well.  Recommended to families that don’t already have a copy of this classic tale, and people who like this style of art.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

And now, let’s have the trailer of a Finnish movie adaptation!

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Book Review: The Black Spider

Book Review: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf

It is a beautiful day in rural Switzerland, sunny and warm–a good day for a christening.  As the guests digest the first part of the feast, one of them notices an anomalous piece of wood built into one of the window frames.  The infant’s grandfather tells the tale of a cruel feudal lord, a bold woman, the devil…and a black spider.

This tale of terror was written in 1842 by Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius, who wrote under the name of Jeremias Gotthelf.   This is a new translation by Susan Bernofsky.

The Black Spider

As is common with stories of the time, The Black Spider takes its own sweet time to get started.  It begins with a long description of a farm family  and their neighbors getting ready for the christening and the subsequent party; if nothing else, it’s a window into the customs of rural Switzerland in the Nineteenth Century.  Eventually a chance remark leads into the main action of the story.

It seems that this valley was once under the control of the Teutonic Knights, and the master of the castle makes unreasonable demands of the peasants.  At last he asks the impossible, and the farmers despair.  A mysterious stranger offers to help them out, and it sounds too good to be true.  This dark-skinned and red-haired stranger is of course the Devil, and he’ll help them out in exchange for one unbaptized child.  They cavil, and it is the bold wife of one who finally agrees, the deal sealed with a kiss on her cheek.

The Devil is as good as his word, helping move a forest from one mountain to another.  But this is a horror story, and a deal with the Devil never ends well.  Soon a child is about to be born, and the black hickey on Christine’s cheek begins to grow and sprout “legs” like a spider, reminding her to give the Devil his due.  Naturally, the villagers decide that they don’t want to give a baby to the Prince of Darkness

Christine is thwarted once and again, and the black spider appears for the first time, bringing disaster to the valley.  Now Christine’s own sister-in-law is fast approaching her travail, and this time the villagers are convinced it might be a good idea to give over.  The ensuing events release the full power of the black spider.

The monster is finally sealed by the self-sacrifice of a pious woman, but the story isn’t over yet.   An impious jerk releases the black spider once more, and the valley is nearly depopulated before it is put back into the wood.  Now only the piety and faith in God of the farm family keeps the creature confined.

The horror of the tale is enhanced by the framing; a sunny day of happiness and feasting, and the grandfather’s matter of fact telling.  (There are a couple of spots where he’s clearly embellishing, however–he describes more than one scene where there were no survivors to give details.)

There are a few things that might not sit well with modern  readers; Christine is essentially punished for having more gumption than was proper for a woman.  There’s a certain amount of classism; servants must be firmly controlled.  And while God’s power is effective against the black spider, it’s really noticeable that no Heavenly intervention comes to help the peasants against their overlord–it only steps in to directly thwart the powers of Hell.

Recommended to horror fans who don’t mind a leisurely pace and strong religious themes.

 

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic edited by David Sklar & Sarah Avery

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

This fantasy anthology has a dual theme, as indicated by its title; magic as transaction, and magic while traveling.  The former theme brings to mind the classic Faustian bargain story, and the preface mentions that the editors got a bushel full of them, only a few making the cut.

There are eighteen stories, nine for each theme, divided into groups of three by subtheme, such as “Bad Roads.”  Most of the stories are new, but some have been previously printed.  Some standouts include:

  • “Ghost Diamonds” by Scott Hungerford.  A woman and her niece discover that compressing  crematorium ashes into a diamond allows calling the ghost of the deceased.  But they aren’t the only ones who have made this discovery, and someone’s been switching the ghost diamonds with fakes.  But why?
  • “Across the Darien Gap” by Daniel Braum.   A guide attempts to take a hunted woman through the rain forest between Central and South America.  His two-dimensional thinking may doom them.  This one has been made into an episode of Psuedopod, a horror podcast, and is now being lengthened into a book.
  • “Only a Week” by Joyce Chng.  This one might actually be science fiction, set in a futuristic Chinatown.  A courtesan seeks to regain her youthful beauty, but the medicine has side effects and can be taken only for one week….
  • “And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear.  A courier must cross the postapocalyptic Southwest to deliver vital supplies.  But a deal she made years ago is coming due.  Can Harrie finish her delivery with the devil himself in the way?

There’s a good diversity of protagonists, and both happy and sad endings.  A couple of stories are perhaps a little too cliche, but the quality is generally good.

Unlike many small press books I’ve read lately, the proofreading is excellent.

I would recommend this book to fantasy fans in general, and modern fantasy fans in particular.

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